Monday, March 27, 2006

Prehistoric peyote use

I’m growing my Lophophora plants for aesthetics, but I have to admit that the mescaline content and the traditional ceremonial use by Native Americans are fascinating aspects. Apparently peyote use is ancient; archaeological discoveries in caves and rock shelters in the lower Pecos River region, Texas indicate that peyote use dates thousands of years back.

Peyote buttons recovered from a rock shelter in the lower Pecos River region
Peyote buttons recovered from a rock shelter in the lower Pecos River region (photo reproduced from Boyd et al.)

Recently El-Seedi et al. subjected samples from two archaeological specimens of peyote buttons to radiocarbon dating and alkaloid analysis. The specimens were discovered in Shumla Cave No. 5 on the Rio Grande, Texas and now reside in the collection of the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas – see photo above. The peyote samples were dated to be in the time interval 3780–3660 BC, and the alkaloid yield was approximately 2% in both samples. The only peyote alkaloid that could be identified was mescaline, i.e. no traces of the other major peyote tetrahydroisoquinoline alkaloids like lophophorine, anhalonine, pellotine, and anhalonidine could be found.

The authors conclude “From a scientific point of view, the now studied ‘mescal buttons’ appears to be the oldest plant drugs which ever yielded a major bioactive compound upon phytochemical analysis. From a cultural perspective, our identification of mescaline strengthens the evidence that native North Americans already recognized and valued the psychotropic properties of the peyote cactus 5700 years ago.”

The ancient use of peyote is also supported by Boyd et al. who argue that Lower Pecos pictographs (found in the same area as the archaeological peyote specimens) can be seen as evidence for early peyotism.

Hesham R. El-Seedi, Peter A.G.M. De Smet, Olof Beck, Göran Possnert, Jan G. Bruhn (2005), “Prehistoric peyote use: Alkaloid analysis and radiocarbon dating of archaeological specimens of Lophophora from Texas”, Journal of Ethnopharmacology 101, 238–242

Carolyn E. Boyd, J. Philip Bering (1996), “Medicinal and hallucinogenic plants identified in the sediments and pictographs of the Lower Pecos, Texas Archaic”, Antiquity 70, 256-75

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The genus Lophophora – Kaktusy Special 2, 2005: A Review

I just received the new Kaktusy Special monograph on Lophophora. It comprehensively describes the distribution, characteristics and classification of the genus. In an attempt to resolve some of the taxonomic confusion surrounding Lophophora the authors propose a division of the genus into two sections and a change of rank.

lophophora kaktusy special 2 2005Based on factors like chemical composition, habitats, incompatibility of the species, rib numbers and morphology, etc, a division of the genus into the two sections Lophophora and Diffusae is proposed.

Section Lophophora comprises the various forms of the species L. williamsii including the type species (hence the autonym for the section).

Section Diffusae includes the three species related to L. diffusa, i.e. L. diffusa itself, L. fricii, and L. koehresii (aka L. diffusa v. koehresii, aka L. viridescens).

The authors argue convincingly for the taxonomic revision but it would have been interesting if the revision was supported by DNA sequencing results (like Butterworth et al. who confirmed that L. diffusa and L. williamsii are indeed distinct species).

The description for each species includes a detailed distribution map showing the range of the species. The booklet is packed with excellent habitat photos showing the plants natural growth forms (actually some of the very best habitat photos I’ve seen are included in this work – see examples below).

lophophora williamsii and diffusa habitat photos
Left – Lophophora williamsii, Sierra de la Paila, Coahuila
Right – Lophophora diffusa, Peña Miller, Queretaro

The booklet is rounded of with a few notes on the cultivation of Lophophora.

The genus Lophophora is a comprehensive and long needed review of the genus. As mentioned it would have been great with DNA sequencing results supporting the change of rank for L. fricii and L. koehresii. Also an index and a list of literature references would have been helpful. That being said, The genus Lophophora must be recommended to anyone interested in these fascinating plants.

The booklet is written by Jaroslav Bohata, Vojtĕch Myšák, and Jaroslav Šnicer; it comprises 48 pages, contains 89 color photos, 3 black and white photos, and 6 drawings. It is available from the Society of Czech and Slovak Cactus and Succulent Growers. Apart from the English edition I believe German and Czech editions are published as well.

Update - March 21, 2006
I have to mention the review of the Genus Lophophora published in the latest edition of CactusWorld (the journal of the British Cactus and Succulent Society). According to the reviewer this work “boldly goes where no taxonomist has gone before” in the attempt at clarifying the systematics of Lophophora ;-)

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